Starting out as a conventional surfing travelogue before transforming, midway through, into an acerbic rant against capitalism and consumerism, and then coming completely unhinged when the filmmaker’s cast and crew abandon him atop a Sri Lanka mountain, Marshall K. Hattori’s “Imagine Surfing as Sadhana” makes an oddball addition to the surf docu canon, paying homage to the early, genre-defining works of Bruce Brown and Greg MacGillivray while tacitly criticizing the part such films played in the evolution of a zen leisure activity into a multimillion-dollar sports industry. While fans of surf footage won’t be let down by Hattori’s glorious telephoto wave photography, this playful, intelligent docu has more than just water on its brain.
After selling nearly all of his worldly possessions to finance pic, Hattori sets off on a world tour of surf spots, accompanied by semi-pro surfers Stephen Slater and Christian Enns and surf wear model Veronica Kay. And while his cast and crew view the excursion as a pleasure trip, for Hattori the making of the film represents a search for surfing’s higher spiritual possibilities. Pic’s title refers to the Hindi word for spiritual practice — a way of finding enlightenment. Pic ambles along a conventional route at first, scouting out choice breaks in Chile, Brazil and Morocco, while a superb world music soundtrack gets interrupted by Hattori’s self-consciously cheeky, Brown-inspired narration. There are other tips of the hat to those who inspired Hattori, most notably when he photographs his subjects surfing down North African sand dunes. It’s the least interesting part of Hattori’s film, and goes on too long.
But soon, Hattori’s cohorts begin to complain of boredom and fatigue — as much as they love surfing, they long to go home. This chasm between Hattori and his crew shapes the remainder of the film. The split becomes symbolic for Hattori of divides between technology and traditionalism, Third World simplicity and yuppie-ism, and surfing’s organic past and its mass-marketed present.
Shifting his concentration to his own search for enlightened meaning, he meditates with a guru in India and drops in on vegetarian farmer Garth Dickenson, who lives on an open farm in Australia with no phone, electricity or running water, but whose surfboard is always close at hand. He observes impoverished Indian children at play and notes that the combined cost of Veronica’s swimsuits is more than double the cost of three weeks’ food and lodging in Sri Lanka.
Hattori is ultimately loathe to fully embrace or dismiss any of his subjects’ lifestyle choices. Nor is there any indication, at pic’s end, that Hattori has found the Sadhana he seeks. But what is most striking throughout is the success with which Hattori presents his beloved sport as a great unifier of cultures, ages and races.